Health tourism is NOT bad – but what you’re being told about it is

Conjure up a picture of your local hospital. Now imagine a woman dying in childbirth on its steps, with the doors closed to her.

See in your mind’s eye a child knocked down by a truck, their bones shattered into gravel, bleeding to death in reception while doctors are held back by accountants.

Not on, is it? Not in the land of the NHS.

But what if they’re foreign?

Today we have the case of Pricilla, pictured above, a Nigerian lady decried as a health tourist across the pages of newspapers after racking up a £500,000 bill for having quads in a London hospital.

She came here while six months pregnant! Her brats cost thousands to keep in incubators! She’s too poor to pay! Bang the table, growl, shake your head.

Except that’s not quite the full story – or, indeed, anywhere near an explanation.

Pricilla, a nurse, underwent IVF at home in Nigeria, where the procedure can cost as little as £260. It’s not the same indicator of wealth as it is here.

She conceived quadruplets and her doctor advised her to have them abroad, as mothers in Nigeria have a 1 in 13 chance of dying in childbirth. In the UK it’s 1 in 7,000.

Pricilla could have arrived on a tourist visa and presented at A&E for free emergency treatment. She chose instead to go to the USA where she has family.

She boarded a plane at around 24 weeks pregnant, within the recommended limits for travel by women with multiple pregnancies.

Her only crime by this point was to be a 43-year-old who needed help to conceive. But then she landed in Chicago.

Despite there being no legal requirement for health insurance to travel to the USA, and despite her having a valid visa, the authorities said unless she had the resources to pay for medical care she had to leave.

With the cost of a twin birth being roughly £80,000 in the USA and quads far more, Pricilla couldn’t give that assurance.

Ignoring their legal duty to provide emergency medical care until patients are stabilised, regardless of the ability to pay, the authorities put Pricilla on a plane back to Nigeria.

If that seems particularly cruel of America, well, they also charged us £21billion for helping out in World War 2 and were still taking the cash until 2006. Superpowers aren’t necessarily nice people.

So there was Pricilla, pregnant with four babies it was probably going to kill her to deliver, on a plane home after a stressful to-do with Uncle Sam, and she went into early labour.

The flight the US had put her on was going via London, so once it landed cabin crew called an ambulance and off she went to hospital where the NHS gave her the same care it’d give to any of us.

One baby died soon after birth and another, named Deborah, died this weekend. The remaining two, called Elijah and Esther, are in neonatal intensive care where they are fighting for life.

Their story featured in a BBC documentary which showed hospital bean counters worrying about the bill, which had topped £500,000 including £20,000 a week for each baby in an incubator.

I had a baby last year. I was rushed to theatre for a forceps delivery, helped by a dozen medical professionals, and have since had prescriptions, GP and health visitor appointments. I’ve paid all my taxes since I was 18 but I’ve no idea how much it all costs, and I don’t know if I’ve paid in enough to cover it.

But the NHS has never billed me, or asked me about my tax band: they just helped because they could. And they did the same for Pricilla.

The alternative was her delivering four probably-dead babies in an airport terminal. That would be a gruesome, shabby, barbaric thing, akin to a newspaper reporting the death of two newborns by screaming their foreign mother should pay for it.

Pricilla did not break a single rule or steal any advantage from us. And it didn’t really cost us£500,000.

In 2015 the Tories changed the rules so that anyone from outside Europe had to pay 150% of the cost of their treatment, so £166,666 of that bill is entirely in the mind of David Cameron.

The truth is that Pricilla didn’t want to come here, didn’t plan to come here, didn’t rack up the bill she’s been presented with and didn’t have any alternative. But yet she’s described as a ‘health tourist’ as though she picked the NHS out of a Thomson brochure and wanted to visit Buckingham Palace on her way home.

Despite the NHS being 70 years old, health tourism became a scandal only after 2010. And almost all the claims about the price are estimates.

The costs of people who deliberately arrive in Britain with the intention of being treated by the NHS has been put at anywhere between £110m and £280m.

Sound like a lot? The larger figure represents just 0.24% of the annual NHS budget. Missed GP appointments cost us about the same, and they’re OUR fault.

Despite repeated calls for them to be selective about who they treat, our doctors and nurses insist their job is to care rather than judge.

If you say a foreigner can’t have care they didn’t pay taxes for, then nor can a stay-at-home mum. A minimum-wage shiftworker gets second-class treatment and Richard Branson gets all the bells and whistles.

Hardly fair, and hardly what the NHS was ever intended to do.

But yet that’s how we’re encouraged to think – that some people are more deserving than others, and the ones who deserve the least are foreigners.

European hospitals can reclaim the cost of our care from our government, while some other nations have reciprocal agreements. The deals all differ: for example in the Turks and Caicos you get a free ambulance only on the main island, and in New Zealand all that’s free is dental care. In Gibraltar you have to pay for home visits and in the British Virgin Islands you’ll get free treatment only if you’re over 70.

All the countries of Africa, south America, Asia and the Pacific demand we pay for everything. And if we visited, or got ill while changing planes, they’d be within their rights to let us die on the doorstep just like we didn’t do with Pricilla.

And if they did that, you can bet your bottom dollar there’d be keyboard warriors and tabloid front pages screaming about “primitive” care. They’d probably all be nicer about two dead babies as well.

Treating Pricilla cost us no more than treating one of us. We waste more every day by abusing the NHS than we spent on her. Yet it’s Priscilla we’re told to worry about.

While you’re worrying about her, you’re not worrying about why health tourism is suddenly a thing. You’re not asking yourself why it’s fine for you to get free care you might not have paid for, but not them. You’re not counting up the sums and figuring out the only way the Tories can stop the NHS being free is if you help them.

You’re especially not thinking about whether it’s worth getting het up about: although about 40% of those invoiced by the NHS repay some or all of the costs, the Department of Health says it could cost £18m to recover £15m in unpaid bills.

Once they get you to agree to restrict it for foreigners, you’ll restrict it for young lads who get drunk and fall over. Then you’ll restrict it for diabetics who didn’t eat properly, for epileptics who don’t wrap themselves in mattresses and for people who trip down the stairs.

Once you insist every traveller has to have health insurance, you’ll need the same. And then cancer will be something that you need to be rich to survive.

If you start down that road then eventually you’ll restrict the NHS for yourself. And you’ll be told to pay through the nose in every country, including your own.

Far better not to get angry about Pricilla, who’s stuck in a hostel while her surviving babies struggle to breathe.

Far better to compare the costs, and keep your GP appointments.

Far better to hope Pricilla shows the rest of the world why they should all have a NHS too, and that maybe one day it will be found everywhere, with everyone paying what they can and taking what they need.

The NHS is the best, fairest and most decent way of looking after ourselves. The more of us that see that, the more will demand it, and the more we will get it – here and abroad.

Then perhaps we can have proper health tourism. What’s not to like about that?